Maui and Big Island Report, Part III (Kona, Keahou and Holualoa)
Parts I and II are here and here:
The last leg of our anniversary trip was to the Big Island, which is where hubby and I were married ten years ago, and where I'd like to retire someday. We love the Big Island, and try to get there as often as possible. Unfortunately, I've never thought the restaurants, particularly on the Kona side, live up to the promise of ingredients there, and we always do a lot of cooking in on our BI trips. This trip was no exception, though we did get out for a few meals. Sadly, hubby had to leave a few days before me to make a detour to San Diego for a work meeting and missed a few of my favorite meals. Guess that means we have to go back sooner rather than later...
As always, our home on the BI was Silver Oaks Ranch:
which we love, and which has a kitchen and outdoor grill for that cooking we did. Highly recommended from a CH perspective. The breakfast items they leave you include fresh pastured eggs from their own chickens. Had a lovely frittata one night...
Places we ate:
Holuakoa Cafe: I had heard great things, and we really wanted to love this place in Holualoa. It serves organic foods and uses local ingredients, and the setting in a garden up in coffee country is very pretty. Sigh. Too bad the food was mediocre and the service annoying, particularly since it is rather pricey.
We made a reservation, which wasn't needed, and drove the eight miles or so from Silver Oaks to the restaurant. We were seated promptly at a nicely spaced open air table overlooking the pretty garden. Our drinks (a gauva Mai Tai for me, hubby had a martini) were brought quickly. So far, so good.
For starters, I had the Hawaiian pumpkin soup, hubby had a salad. I had heard soups were particularly good here, but I thought this one was a bit sweet, not particularly memorable. Hubby pronounced his salad to be just ok, though I didn't try it. The real disappointment were the mains: hubby got a pork chop; the meat was dry, and the sauce was unbalanced and heavy handed with sage and rosemary. However, the pork was still the better choice. When I ordered the mahi mahi I asked if it could be cooked rare, telling the server that I really prefer fish to be less well done. She told me the chef liked to cook it to just medium rare, and was that ok. Me: yes, if it really is medium rare. She: no problem. Well, sure enough, it came out medium to medium well. Apart from that it was served on a bed of succotash that was overwhelmed by tomato (not just chopped pieces of tomato but in a tomato sauce) that was cloying and didn't let the flavors of the vegetables shine through. Similar to the preparation of hubby's pork, there were large sprigs of thyme and oregano, with stems still attached, that didn't really add to the flavor but appeared to be thrown on top in an unappealing fashion, just for the sake of having herbs, with no real thought given. The fact that they were still stemmed made them difficult to eat and I found myself picking them out of the dish. Not particularly appetizing.
The wine list is somewhat limited. I was looking forward to my glass of Italian dry rose, but it tasted as if it had been opened too long.
Reports on other sites have mentioned that service here can be slow. Perhaps we had slowed down already after about two weeks in Hawaii, but we thought the pace of the service was fine. However, everything else about the service was annoying, particularly the fact that our server tried to make small talk with us, interrupting our conversations to chat about her recent vacation, why she was late to work that day, why she was so tired that day, etc. etc. The setting there is so romantic; why would a server want to interrupt a private conversation to chat about mundane items not related to the meal or service? Even more annoying was that when she wasn't chatting she consistently used affected phrases that were jarringly out of place (sort of like those herbs in our mains) for the casual, tropical setting: "Would the lady like a drink?" "And what will the gentleman have to drink?" "here is the Lady's glass of wine"... Yuck.
All this was about $150 with tax and tip, even though we skipped dessert (we were just eager to get away from the server at that point, and figured there was no reason to believe dessert would be exceptional or even all that good). Bottom line: I wouldn't be in any hurry to go back, particularly for dinner, and don't recommend it.
We went back to Holualoa a few days later for the Annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival coffee stroll. On a rainy day, walking through town from booth to booth tasting free samples of fresh brewed coffee: what could be better? Lots of other treats to sample and purchase: we stocked up on coffee honey and coffee jelly, which was outstanding, from a small farm (alas, didn't catch the name). Someone was selling tamales; she apparently sells them at local Farmer's Markets regularly. Again, didn't get a name, but they were good, if you see someone selling tamales at a farmer's market, they are probably hers, and I'd buy a few for lunches. We also enjoyed the bake sale sponsored by a local HIV/AIDS service organization: dreamy brownies and cookies made with love. If you are lucky enough to be in Kona during the Coffee festival, don't miss the stroll.
Keahou Farmer's Market: A Saturday am market in the Keahou Shopping Center parking lot, featuring local producers. A great place to pick up ingredients as well as gifts to take home (just be sure to get prepared, packaged goods; you cant take fresh vegies and fruits to the mainland). Highly recommended. Here is a vendor's list:
Sampled tree tomatoes for the first time; loved them and purchased a bag to snack on (you cut off the top and suck out the insides. Tastes like a cross between a tomato and a kiwi. Delish!). Also got rambutan, and sampled the dragonfruit, which I thought was sort of bland. We also got some salad makings and local baby potatoes, and that, along with grass-fed veal, humanely raised, organic, and cut for scallopini, from Kealia Ranch, was our dinner one night. The veal was $12 a pound; which I thought was a bargain given that it was completely pounded and ready to dredge in flour and saute. I'd never made scallopini before, but hubby saw it and had to have it for his last meal in Hawaii, and It was delicious! Those with kitchens should definitely check out Kealia Ranch meats.
Ba-Le: this is a small Hawaiian based chain, mostly Vietnamese, but some Korean, Hawaiian and pan-asian dishes. As I mentioned in another post, I had a very good solo dinner here one night: I was tired after a day on the beach and just wanted a quick take out meal. Ba-le hit the spot. Kalbi (Korean beef ribs) with 'two scoops rice' and mac/potato salad. Everything was fresh and tasty. When I went to pick up my order on a Sunday evening there were lots of families enjoying good looking pho, and the place smelled great. Low prices. I'll go back.
Tacos El Unico: wow: a taqueria right in Kona, behind the Kona Marketplace, my divemaster tipped me off to this place. A bit hidden, perhaps that is why I've missed it on previous trips? This is the real deal, a taqueria that appears to cater to local workers (despite, or perhaps because of, its location), with signage in English and Spanish and items on the menu (cabeza, lengua, tripe) that I don't think you will find elsewhere in town. You order at the counter and they bring your meal to you; there is a large patio in back, with a resident talking parrot to greet you. Very kid friendly. In addition to tacos, they have a few combo plates, mole, sopes, pozole, enchiladas and the like. Hubby wasn't hungry and just had a taco de carne asada. I tried one taco de lengua, one de carnitas, and a tostada de ceviche. You can even get a mission-style burrito,( not that I would). The tacos were all good to very good, enhanced by house made tortillas and truly incendiary sauces (red and green) that were both delicious. They don't dumb down the salsas here. The ceviche was less of a success: instead of those lovely tortillas it was served on a tortilla shell that I don't think was made in house, the fish appeared to have been cooked (other than in lime juice), and it tasted mostly of lime and salt. Of the meats, the carnitas was my favorite, though the tongue wasn't bad. Service was friendly and efficient, and at about $12 including tax for three tacos, a tostada, a diet coke and a Senorial (Mexican soda), it was probably the cheapest meal out of our trip. I suspect this is the cheapest good food you are going to find in Kailua-Kona town. Not outstanding by California standards, certainly, but good and worth seeking out for the hungry and/or homesick on a budget. Recommended.
Taco Del Mar: I also stopped in for a snack at this taqueria, that is apparently part of a small chain, on Highway 19, between Kona and the airport. Much more "Americanized" than Tacos El Unico, and somewhat more expensive, though not outrageously so. Much of the food is in a steam table. My tacos were served on standard grocery store tortillas, though my carnitas themselves weren't bad. They put on the salsa and toppings, I prefer to do have access to do it myself. Salsas were definitely dumbed down. I didn't try the fish tacos; they might be the way to go here. There were two large TVs playing football. I wouldn't be in a hurry to go back, but you could do worse for a quick snack on the way to or from the Kohala area. There is a cafe serving local foods, Pine Tree Cafe, and a small grocery store in the same complex, both looked to be worth checking out, though I didn't have time to do so.
That's it for Kona and surrounds. I will do one more report on my dining in Kohala at Monstera: it was my favorite meal on the Big Island, and definitely worthy of its own report!
76-5901 Mamalahoa Hwy, Holualoa, HI 96725
Pine Tree Cafe
73-4040 Hulikoa Dr Ste 2, Kailua Kona, HI 96740
Shops At Mauna Lani, Waikaloa, HI 96743-9704